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Ryann Holmes on The Origins of Bklyn Boihood, Identity and Self-Acceptance

Ryann Holmes on The Origins of Bklyn Boihood, Identity and Self-Acceptance

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Ok, so what is a "boi?" according to Urbandictionary.com (a HIGHLY trusted source), it's a word used in "the lesbian community, a young transgendered/androgynous/masculine person who is biologically female and presents themselves in a young, boyish way." Ryann Holmes, the co-founder of Bklyn Boihood, whose mission is defined as "to spread love through community-building events, music and art while sharing our journey as bois of color who believe in safe spaces, accountable action and self-care" has a more interesting way to answer that question. 

In addition to providing physical space for bois to commune, chill, talk and party, Bklyn Boihood also produces a yearly calendar that slyly and geniusly pokes playful fun at annual firefighter calendars by using a similar format that instead, promotes beautiful, regal, stylish images of bois of color empowered by their image. Bklyn Boihood also host an annual retreat and conducts workshops at colleges and community organizations on "Un/Doing Masculinity" which champions "healthy masculinity, intersectionality of identities and anti-misogyny for bois of color all over the world." 

We spoke with the exceptionally down-to-earth, intelligent, and cool-as-hell Ryann about the origins of Brooklyn Boihood and its journey to becoming an international movement (at the interview, we were told the collective had just been granted a publishing deal for an anthology due out mid 2015), Ryann's own struggles with self-acceptance and the complexity of masculine and feminine identity.  

So, you were telling me that you’re a bit tired from hanging out with Nikki Giovanni last night at The Red Rooster in Harlem. That’s some impressive sounding ish.

Ha - yeah, my brother is in college in Virginia and became friendly with Nikki, she's a professor at Virginia Tech, and I met her last night. She is incredible. She said something really great last night. She said that she lives in Southern Virgina and the pollen is so thick that this room would be covered in no time. It comes through the window, and your house is so dusty. Every morning you wake up and there’s this dust. You dust it off, you wake up again, there's more. She really believes in pushing people towards what they can do, because you can only do what you can and if everyone continues to dust, that means someone else can do something. You do what you can, and you make it possible for someone else to do what they can. When I was with her last night, I was like what time does your day start? She's like 5:30am - I don't know how old she is but she has so much energy. We were there till' midnight and I was telling my brother, like, I gotta get out of here. I'm tired! But I think having that outlook is what keeps her going.

That’s a beautiful analogy. Is that what you feel you’re doing with Bkyln Boihood? Making room for the next person?

Yeah, definitely. Bkyln Boihood evolved from me - out of something I was so naturally called to. I’m from Maryland and was born in DC and have lived in NYC for almost a decade. Bkyln Boihood started in 2009 and we started gathering people together. Come January 2010 we had the website going and started openly promoting the calendar. I’ve always been a person who under any circumstance or situation -  if I feel injustice or feel like  people aren’t being respected - even if it isn’t myself, I feel it the same. So it was only natural that in my identity, I couldn’t actually stand walking through life feeling this way or not loving myself or being in places where I didn’t feel like I could discuss my identity.

What was it like for you growing up? 

I was so embarrassed, unclear and confused about what I was supposed to be doing and I wasn’t being affirmed at all. I didn’t disclose a lot…I was outed in high school, I didn’t come out. I didn’t have that many people super close to me to relate to. I didn’t have community. I was searching for myself and didn’t have enough confidence to really do me and not be looking around like, ‘is this weird?’ Just because of the nature of who I am, when I got to NYC, I sort of settled in and got comfortable and made a community hub. I’m that person who is like, ‘wanna come over tomorrow?’ and I met you two days ago. So my space really quickly started to grow...that was my nickname, ‘the hub’ and that’s how my mom was. We were that house on the block that all the kids were at.

Has your family been supportive?

It’s a weird thing. I don’t do the type of work that is easily shared. I don’t know that people get it – get the magnitude of it. My parents are proud of me, but they don’t fully understand what I’m doing but my siblings, they follow me and keep up with me online and they’re so supportive, my sister buys a calendar every year.

Was there a moment where you had this idea or did it happen over time?

It was probably a build up of things. I came to New York to really explore and embrace my identity. I started to present more masculine and I was meeting different people and connecting and sharing my experience. I was thinking ok, I’m not imagining that I feel this way. I really began to connect with people and recognize my power. With an old friend, we started Bkyln Boihood together. We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.

We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images.

That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images. Other things were coming out but not in the way that I wanted it to be portrayed. If I saw things with boi’s of color, it wasn’t that professional or I wasn’t really diggin’ the fashion. It just didn’t translate. It was so bizarre, us looking in the mirror...we were like, people should see this and we should show them. We were like, why not start a project and take leadership? So that’s what shaped the idea of the calendar.

It sounds like you’re a natural community curator. Who were some of the people you were meeting when you first came to New York?

When I first got here I ended up meeting a woman who I ended up dating for four years. She was from Yonkers and we began exploring Brooklyn. As I met more people, I started wanting to be involved and started asking about an organization I could work with. I started volunteering with the Audre Lorde Project and that was sort of my entry into the activist world. It gave me a little more language to say what I was feeling and to identify who I was. It was an interesting environment but at the same time, it wasn’t quite right. I still felt there were things that were missing. It didn’t fulfill me enough and that led me to want to create another type of space.

I think lots of  high school students can relate to feeling isolated or trying to figure themselves out. Yet you’ve created a community where young bois of color have an alternative to that.

It’s so intense. We’ve gotten letters from people in different places. I remember getting a letter from someone in Kenya who had gotten the calendar in a really sneaky way and it meant everything to them to just know that we’re out here doing this...that they can exist in this and that they’re actually a person and affirmed. I get so emotional talking about this. I mean, we have our struggles but we live in New York City, I can walk from here to there. To  think about how much we do have...and be able to tell people about that…it’s completely changed my life.

It’s revolutionary.

Yeah, it really feels like that.

Within the queer community, I imagine there are a lot of sub-communities. Did you get any push back from other groups? 

Yeah, definitely. Neither of us [the co-founders] have activist backgrounds. I remember when I first got to Audre Lorde I was like, I don’t know what these acronyms are. It’s get a little academic. There are parts of that that I love but it wasn’t exactly for me. I felt like it could shut people out and isolate people that were like me and maybe not able to completely connect with it. When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.

When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.

That shifted when I went on a leadership retreat for the Brown Boi Project in 2010. I went out to Oakland and that conference shifted the course of my life. I didn’t even know what I was getting into. We stayed in this big mansion and had workshops and were inundated in everything from self-care and financial stability to breaking down gender justice and femininity and masculinity...and it wasn’t just queer and trans folks, there were straight black men who were part of the program. It was really transformative. At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.

What is the greater purpose?

I mean, it sounds super cheesy but it’s to spread love and that starts in the way we care for each other to how we choose to be a platform and to the way that we create space with people and in communities. Even if we have to do something that’s hard or controversial, we always try to come from a place of love.

At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.

Can you talk a bit about your work mentoring young people? 

I also mentor young people and we talk about sexuality and homophobia and the young girls, a lot of them have no problem saying, I love women but at the same time they say a lot of really negative things about gay men, femininity, and gay feminine men. If a gay man isn’t feminine, there is this disbelief that that can even exist. I tell them all the time, the society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. To me honestly, I feel like all it is energy. I feel like our spirits are ebbing and flowing with one another and we all have different ways that manifest. Some of us choose to express it more than others whether it be through how we present our gender, who we choose to love.

The society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified...it’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love.

Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified or there to enhance masculinity or serve the more negative aspects. It’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. There’s so many misconceptions. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love. It’s so vast, the ways we can actually connect to ourselves and each other. We limit ourselves and we shun those who don’t...we shame them and make them think that they’re weird but actually they’re doing what comes natural. To me, this is the more incredible thing to do. I’ve always maintained a particular type of energy from when I was a baby and I was lucky enough to have a mom who was like ‘ok, fine, you can wear the baseball hat.'

I think folks who define themselves as heterosexuals have a lot of stereotypes or misconstrued ideas of “boi” relationships. Does the “straight” opinion even matter?

It’s funny because if you look up femininity in the dictionary it will say things like ‘weak’ or ‘nurturing’ ..if you talk to a young black man and ask him who is the strongest black icon in his life he will often answer his mother. To be cliché, I feel that people fear what they don’t understand. They have a hard time with someone threatening what they understand about themselves. It matters to me because it affects my life. If you feel a certain way, your actions may reflect that. That’s what leads to people being in violent situations.

That’s why I work with young people. I’m interested in talking to people who don’t get it - who are like, what? I’m not interested in sitting in a room with people who get it – I mean, it’s important to continue to analyze but I like to push it and talking to 16, 17 or 18 year old men who have been on the block their whole life, that’s what they know. I just feel like something has to happen to people...to have some relatable moment, where they see beyond themselves. If you think you know shit, that’s when you stop letting yourself learn more shit. That’s when you’re in trouble. That’s why I like young people. They don’t mind being told what you think you know may not be the truth.

What are your thoughts on boi relationships in which one or both people are mimicking masculinity in dominant and oppressive ways?

I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from.

That’s not a foreign experience. That’s the problem with a lack of visibility and a really short list of examples…people latch on to stuff. So if there’s this self hated and it’s internalized when it comes to not wanting to identify with certain parts of womanhood or perceived womanhood plus wanting to be affirmed in how they present and their masculinity...the reason men embody these negative things is the misconception that this is what makes you a man and a lot of that comes from this really false sense of what it means. It actually looks crazy as hell, especially in certain bodies, like how could you treat women this way and look at yourself? I guess that is what we push back on and I think it’s just a part of a lot of people’s process because they don’t have any other framework. I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from...just to provide another framework because if all you have to model is the men in your life or other bois who are mimicking that shit, then that’s what it’s gonna be.

Did you ever expect Bklyn Boihood to have blown up like this?

I always believed it could, somewhere deep down. We always spoke about it really affirmingly but we never expected it to reach overseas and for people to be ordering it from London, Nairobi, South Africa, Brazil…there’s a woman who takes 20 or 30 to Brazil and gives them to bois. We exist all over the world and all over the planet. That to me is amazing, for there to be no mainstream visibility and for people to be at home just like me, in the mirror, getting dressed, figuring myself out and coming to terms with who I am.  For the people on that journey, that just makes me want to keep on doing this work, keep affirming each other, it’s just amazing. I think the next part of our journey will be to not only reach but continue to expose these individuals and stories.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature image, photo credit: King Texas

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

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Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

When I think of my childhood, trees and grass aren't the first thing that come to mind. Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City, my Summertime childhood memories tend to invoke the stuff of urban 80’s movies including, but not limited to: the jingle of the impending arrival of the ice-cream truck, the gorgeous smell of spoiled garbage and hot pavement, Big Daddy Kane blasting out of boom boxes,  my brother and I playing exhilarating games of freeze tag with the neighborhood kids, catching fireflies and examining their florescent glow, and of course, mothers yelling out of their windows, “time to come inside"! - their shouts echoing off massively tall buildings.

As Zebi Williams, founder of the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica says, “ [in Jamaica] the earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you.” Zebi's childhood involved more of Mother Nature than mine and her desire to return to her beloved hometown spawned by memories of her idyllic childhood, resulted in the creation of a summer youth camp.  At only 19 years old, and as a new mother, the Jamaican/Washington DC native started the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp ten years ago as a way to create a space for neighborhood children to learn about the arts and entrepreneurship in a fun, creative, open environment that teaches self-development, self-love, and the power of community. The humble and brilliant Zebi spoke with Project Inkblot about the effect of our environment on our creativity, her incredible volunteers/teaching artists, her vision for the camp, and why following your dreams as a parent is just as important for your children as it is for your soul. 

How did the idea for the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp start?

It started because I really wanted to go back to Jamaica. I was born in DC. My dad is Jamaican and my mom is American. I’m multicultural and biracial. When I was in third grade I moved back to Jamaica for a time and that’s the part of my life I remembered I love the most. From 8 to 13 years old I lived in this village up in the Blue Mountains. We had no paved roads, no light…and I lived in a house with 20 of my cousins and most of that time was spent outside. It was a small house, two bedrooms. I loved all of the imaginative play. We’d roast cashews, make our own fires, and I just loved it.

When I came back to America, I felt homesick. I always knew I would go back to Jamaica and that that would be a big part of life.  In college, I studied cultural anthropology with a focus on sustainable development for the Caribbean. I decided during my sophomore year that I wanted to go back to Jamaica and volunteer but I couldn’t find any volunteer opportunities. My mom was like, ‘well why don’t you start your own thing’? I always loved summer camps because I had my time in Jamaica where I was always in nature and then I had that time in America where I would be in summer camps. I felt like that was something I could do. I could create this summertime experience for kids in my hometown. I was 19 when I started the camp and I was feeling rebellious and going through my existential crisis -  reading Malcolm X and watching Life and Debt. I thought, I need to be out in the world doing something.

There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It’s something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

What’s Life and Debt?

Oh, you have to see it. It changed my life. It’s a movie about the IMF and the global economy and how the economy in Jamaica is basically owned by the IMF. Tourists come to Jamaica and all they see is this glossy image like, ‘yeah mon, no problem’. There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It's something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

From that film, I saw all of these big problems that were systematic and big and I thought, I don’t know how to affect those problems but what I can do, is I can offer a break. I can offer a time for the kids to step away and just be kids and have that same enjoyment. That’s basically what the camp is for them, a week vacation. I feel like that will have an affect on their development and their well-being.

How many kids do you accept into the program?

It’s in my hometown, where I grew up. We have 125 children so basically all of the children come. We’re basically raising a whole generation of children. What’s special about this is that everyone is getting the same education.

How did the vision for the camp develop?

The first year I went down, there was no real vision. I took a break and I came back five years later and at that time I had more of a focus. I knew the focus would be the arts because I knew all of these artists in Brooklyn and we really wanted to create a movement but I’m also an entrepreneur so it was like, arts and entrepreneurship. We have children from the age of 5 – 17. When they graduate from the program they become junior counselors and they go through a rite of passage. The oldest kids right now are 19 years old.

We place them in different African named tribes. A lot of Jamaicans don’t love their blackness or their Africaness. They’ll bleach their skin or think black is ugly or that being African is negative so I want them to know more about what African is. They get to know parts of the culture and it’s about loving yourself and all of the different layers of what that is; loving your history and where you came from, loving your flaws, and loving your talents. We have the tribe time when the kids are with counselors who are doing self-development activities with them and also taking them on hikes, going to the river, and having mentor time with them. They also get to go to art classes. The younger ones get to test out different art subjects. Maybe today they’ll do drumming and tomorrow they’ll take dancing. If you’re not exposed you may think well, I only like doing this because you haven’t tried enough things, you don’t know what your talent is. So we give them an opportunity to expand their horizons.

That sounds like such gratifying work. Is there a particular example that sticks out with a student?

There is this area in the community where people are kind of shunned. The community wouldn’t touch the kids from that community, they wouldn’t hold their hands, the kids weren’t really going to school. But with the camp we brought everyone together and we were like, you’re going to treat everyone with respect. There was this one girl who was from that community who was an amazing writer. She was ten years old and during lunch one day she came to me and said, ‘Zebi, I want to show you my poetry’. She was really quiet and the kids were always picking on her and so she felt down about herself.

This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us...all the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

She read her poems to me. Her poetry was amazing. This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us and we were able to show her that it was an amazing talent, by being her audience. We had a talent show that year and she got up on the stage and the adults got to see her perform. Now she’s our poet laureate. She’s written more books of poetry, she’s writing plays, she's writing songs. All the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. She’s going to a boarding school on a scholarship. And the adults were like ‘whoa’ they never got to see how talented their children are. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

Why do you think that is?

So many reasons.  I’m always having conversations about this. Why are we hiding our lights as adults? Why are we hiding our lights as children? Even this little girl, I see so much of myself in her. She’s at this stage where she knows herself but she’s not able to experience herself and I feel that same way. So sometimes it’s me feeling like I’m not a leader but knowing that I am a leader. You know you have a bright light but you’re not always able to experience your bright light. We have to learn to surround ourselves with people who see us. I’m grateful that as an adult I’m able to be around people who see me and want me to be myself because they believe in themselves.

When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like, you need to just focus on her. But I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be?

You have a ten-year old daughter, Zia. How does being a mother affect your work as an entrepreneur and your vision for the camp?

I’m learning the balance of being a mother and following my dreams but also respecting her vision of what she wants in her life. What’s great is that she’s a really bright, communicative, creative child so she loves it. She gets a lot of one-on-one attention from our teachers and volunteers so they’re like her aunts and uncles. She’s always raising her hand in meetings and contributing her viewpoint as a child. I had her so young and I was really career driven and have been since I was young. When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like you need to just focus on her but I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be? That’s a conflict that happens within my family and with the elders around me. Wanting me to be solely present to being her mother.

Being an entrepreneur and creating this program takes a lot of my time. It’s long hours and she has to be at the meetings and it’s a commitment that I’ve made. Maybe she’d rather be at the park playing with her friends or at home and she has to be at this meeting with me. But it’s important that she sees me following my dreams. It’s important for our future relationship because our relationship is going to be very long. When she wants to be her own woman, I don’t want to be there like wait - you’re all I have.  I want there to be a respectful and balanced relationship between the both of us. I see that as the long-term vision even though right now it can be challenging. She and I have a great relationship and she sees herself as the person who will be taking over the camp when she gets older and being the future director [laughs]. She looks up to me and that feels really important to me. And I look up to her! She’s around women who are transparent in their own development. She sees our struggles, she sees what we go through, and it’s not perfect. It’s very real. She’s surrounded by so many confident women so I feel good about that.

It sounds like you’ve created many lasting relationships with the volunteers. What it is about Jamaica, and the camp specifically that attracts so many teaching artists?

I think environments speak to who we are. There are environments that we’re made to be in so when you go back, it resonates with who you are. It’s like we’re a tribe of people who are not in our home. And then you gather and you’re like, ‘oh this is where I am supposed to be’. That happens a lot with my volunteers. They find their home in that space. It’s cool because I have a lot of volunteers who are from New York. They have such a desire to be in the county. A lot of my volunteers have been coming for five, six years because it becomes their community. They can really feel like they’re connecting to the environment and the people they want to connect to.

A lot of them are bringing their children and so their children now have a second home. I really enjoy seeing my friends’ children come down and seeing that they can have what I had. I had America but I also had this safe special place in Jamaica that kept me innocent and connected and rooted.

You speak about this sense of connection. What do you think they’re connecting to?

I hear over and over again that people feel like they’ve grown after their trip to Jamaica, like they have had an accelerated growth spurt. There’s an aliveness to the environment. At night, everything is talking and moving. The trees are singing and the stars are bright and you’re in this living organism. The earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you. You really slow down and you’re so observant. The volunteers go back to New York regenerated and able to give.

You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle...you’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

I imagine that has an impact on them creatively.

Exactly. You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle. It’s not America – there’s a more unpredictable, fluid rhythm. You’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

What do you envision for the future with Lil’ Ragamuffin? How big do you see this growing?

We’re building an arts and entrepreneurship center. Right now, we’re a center without walls. We don’t have a structure. Trees and rain affect our classes but we’re committed to the work. But we’ll have this arts center and the center will have year-long programming [instead of just one week] so it will be a space for other arts program in Jamaica. It will be a place for artist residencies. If you have a project you are working on, you can come down and work on that for a month and take that project into a space that encourages that creativity. I am also going to be working as a consultant for people to start camps where they’re from. I’ve had people from places like South Sudan, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic who want to create this camp model in their hometown. My one factor is that I want it to be someone who is from that location, so that it’s a local initiative supported by an international community. So those are the projects we’re looking to create but the Lil Raggamuffin camp is the engine that got that going.

It sounds like there's a part of you truly at peace with the process as opposed to just focusing on the end result.

I recently got the land to build the center and when I got that title, I had this huge feeling of accomplishment like, this mission is going to be accomplished and I will be able to step away at some point from the daily grind. Maybe that’s an illusion, maybe there’s more work that comes with it. It feels like a game. I’m really enjoying this whole process of problem solving and meeting people and having these serendipitous encounters – it’s such a part of my life.

I want to build it so there’s income coming in so I feel financially more at peace. Sometimes I think, sure if I would have chosen another path it would be easier. I would be making a lot more money and I could use my brilliance to make someone else money and have a simple 9- 5 and have weekends off but that’s not my path. I also feel like we have lots of lifetimes in our life. We’re not going to be doing one thing forever, especially now, when things are changing so fast. I see it as right now this is my life. I’m doing this in part of my lifetime and next I’ll be a film director, and next I’ll be a consultant traveling all of the time so it’s like, learn to be patient and play this part out.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Images provided by the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp

 

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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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Bisco and Jasmine: Unifying Visions, Youth, and (While They're At It) The Middle East

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I met Bisco Smith (a.k.a. Brad) several years ago after having first been enamored with his visual art as a designer for one of my favorite music labels growing up, Definitive Jux, after my friend put me onto his work. I also admired the aerosol art that he adorned New York City walls with, his thoughtful lyricism as an emcee, his passion as a youth art educator. After just relocating to LA this past summer, Bisco, along with his creative partner (and girlfriend)--cinematographer and photographer Jasmine Hemery--banded together with a few other talented friends to bring their love of hip-hop and youth development to Israel as a vehicle to unify Israeli and Arab Israeli youth. There they used their hip-hop sensibility to teach mural painting, song-writing, and dance. In this joint interview with Bisc and Jasmine, we give you a glimpse into how their fleeting idea became a transcontinental art program, and how this Jack and Jacqueline-of-all-trades pair continuously push each other to the next level.

As U.S.-based multimedia artists, how did you develop an arts enrichment program in Israel? 

Bisc:I work with an organization called Arts By the People. They're based out of New Jersey, and I got involved with them via my friend Gus doing street art workshops. Gus connected me to this guy Paul who's got a lot of friends in Israel. We were driving around one day and we were just like, “It would be crazy to run this workshop in Israel,” and two weeks later Gus, Paul and I put together a PDF to get money--just breaking down what we wanted to do--and boom! He got us funding in a week. Okay, maybe not a week. It took a few steps, but he  reached out to one person, who reached out to another person, and maybe a few steps later, we got funding and we got a place to go to. It was a very fast process.

We then connected with Project Harmony, a program who works with a great organization in Israel called Hand In Hand. The umbrella that we went to Israel under is Hand In Hand, and inside of it was Arts By The People and Project Harmony. The airfare was privately funded for, and the accommodations were privately funded. We raised money for the materials, which were all donated by friends and family in a really quick matter of time. Between Hand-In-Hand, Arts By The People, and Project Harmony, and donors and friends and family, a lot of people got together to make it work. I went to do the street art workshop. Jasmine came to document everything, Gus planned to do hip-hop song writing, and our friend Renee Floresca came to teach dance.

How many kids did you work with? 

Bisc: We worked with about 50-60 youth. It fluctuated especially because Ramadan started around then. It was an English language summer camp that is run out of Hand In Hand, which is an English language school, so they teach in each classroom--they have one teacher who teaches Hebrew, and one teacher that speaks Arabic in each classroom. They use English as the common thread. It’s a mix of Jewish and Arab kids. Some from Palestine and some from Jerusalem. It’s very progressive and political. There are a few of those schools in Israel.

How does religion play a role in the day-to-day life of the Israeli youth that you worked with?

Bisc: In Israel, things are segregated by religion. I don’t know too much about the experiences of Christian and Muslim Arabs, vs. Jews, but pretty much, everyone is separated because religion is the key factor out there. Younger generations and more progressive people are changing stuff. Most of the parents of the kids that we worked with are artists or creative people. They function in not your everyday world.

Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion.

As Americans, did the actual experience of being there change your initial view of that region of the world? 

Jasmine: I feel like our experience was only formed through our actual journey out there. Initially, we went to Palestine, but we also saw The Holocaust Museum in Israel, and so understanding both perspectives changed what we thought. I think we ended the trip realizing that it's just such a complex situation beyond what we thought we knew. Both sides have views that are relatable. I left feeling much more empathetic to both sides. I think being in The States you have such a skewed perception that leans towards one end.

Bisc:Going there, we went for art. We didn’t go for politics, we didn’t go for religion. Everyone goes to Israel for religion and politics. People don’t really go there for art, so our political knowledge was only what we hear on the internet and it was very skewed. I wasn’t scared by that. I was more focused on the kids than I was about the political climate.

Was working with the youth there challenging because of language or cultural barriers? 

Bisc:I don’t think so. The kids we worked with were very educated. I initially thought that we were going to go to a more underserved area. I think it was actually pretty privileged--not super rich and balling out--but the kids, even to be in a program like that you have to have a family that is doing pretty okay out there.

The kids just loved what we were doing. After the first day, we had their full attention, they were excited about it. I’d say, the age for me was the toughest part. We worked with some kids that were as young as nine, and I’m used to working with kids who are older than that. It was harder to do what I normally do--and I had to on the spot change my approach--but only because of their age, not because they were Israeli or Palestinian.

Jasmine:One of the things that struck us the most was that they had all of the same kid mannerisms as anywhere. Kids are kids no matter where they are from, but sometimes we did experience a language barrier.

Watch Words to the World: The Making of a Mural,a short documentary about the Israel youth project:

WORDS TO THE WORLD - The Making of a Mural from Little Giant on Vimeo.

How did the Israel project fit into the natural scope of your work? 

Jasmine: I feel that this fits into the evolution of our careers that will include more philanthropic causes, including service as part of our common work.

Bisc: I think it’s important to work with young people. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I have definitely been fortunate enough to give back through my work, and I’m sure that’s not going to stop, but I really want to work with all ages sharing these skills and crafts.

Why hip-hop?

I believe that hip-hop is great at breaking boundaries and uniting different ages and cultures, and bring them under one umbrella. Who knows?--Those kids could form an Arab-Jewish collaborative rap group, or slowly make their way to create change through the continuation of hip-hop--which is about unification.

To flip the script and talk about your working relationship, what other major work have you two collaborated on? 

Bisc:Jasmine hasbeen working on these shorts, and she’s been letting me help her assist direct, and do a lot of different stuff on that. I started working with her on her films, and I would score her movies. Then we did a project where it was my music, and she shot me a music video. This is the first time that we’ve travelled overseas and created a documentary piece. Definitely it’s just the first one. We’re both kind of hyped on doing more of it, and it’s a great opportunity for dope co-created projects. We’ve been doing that since day one.

How do you guys keep inspired and sustain your rhythm for creating, individually or in a partnership?

Jasmine: I think as an artist, you are inspired daily. It can be something as simple as someone crossing the street, that you just want to explore and dig deeper, whether it's in film or writing, or painting. I think my rhythm is just everyday life, allowing myself to be inspired to make something. And this guy here is super creative and multi-talented, so naturally in conversation, we’ll be listening to the same thing, and talking about it, and then we create something.

Bisc:We think on the same wavelength. I mean, we’ll both look at the same thing and say “that’s dope." For me, because I always work alone, we’ve had some struggles with Jasmine giving me real criticism and feedback, but it’s a lot of growing and a lot of learning. It’s working in a way that it’s only going to be iller. I think we push each other. I think that where I fall short, she steps in and makes it better. I think we really do fill in the space for each other where we aren’t as strong. It’s done very effortlessly. Say I’m writing something for a client--I’m not the best writer--I ask her, and she will change my perspective and make me better. Boom!

Jasmine: And I’m not the best talker [laughs].

Bisc:You’ll see that I like talking a lot, so I’ll talk for her. It works like that. It’s something creative where we both do for each other. Like when we are directing partners in film; I talk for her, I don’t mind talking where I’m telling people what to do or where to fall on set, and she’s the eye, and together we create a really good overall holistic and creative person. One more thing to add to are both of our goals. Right now I don’t have an ultimate goal, or there's absence of an overall goal. That’s something that I am struggling with in the present--not struggling with--but I think creatively, it’s something that I have to work towards because I have to see it in order to get there. She’s been helping me a lot with visualizing that imagery.

Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, “you can’t connect the dots going forward.” Right now, I just don’t know.

Did Israel fulfill any long standing goals that you had for your careers? 

Jasmine: In terms of traveling, I’ve always traveled and brought a camera and took to photographs, but now that I’m studying film, it was an opportunity to evolve my skills and try to do film, creating what is going to be a miniature documentary. I was trying to capture moments. It’s very different than just taking a photo. You’re capturing an elongated period of time. It was a really interesting experience.

Bisc: For me, I can’t specifically answer that. I don’t know. It’s weird for me to say it, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I don’t really have a "thing." I just kind of take the art as it comes, and this just came to me. I just feel like I was fortunate to get the opportunity and I mean--I paint walls, and I come from that world for more than half of my life. I’ve been involved in that culture for a long time. It’s definitely a continuation of what I come from--the root to my art and creativity. It was also a continuation of being Jewish and coming from that as a whole. Looking forward, I have no idea what it will lead me to. I’m going to quote Steve Jobs and say, "you can’t connect the dots going forward." Right now, I just don’t know.

On the surface it looks like you guys are living the dream. In your day-to-day reality, are there ever times where being in a creative profession is exhausting or unproductive? 

Jasmine: I definitely have creative blocks. For me, I have to force myself to sit there and work through it. Editing for me is really hard. I kind of have to just sit there and force myself to do it. It makes it easier to think in terms of projects. I try to do one project at a time.

Bisc: I don’t know man, for me, I just work. Somedays like today I didn’t do shit. I sat at this desk all day and I organized files. I did bullshit all day. Because I’m in a creative block right now…I don’t know, I guess it comes and goes, at the end I just have faith that everything comes my way, and I’ll make art and I’ll make money. There’s a lot of shit that I want to do. If I write it all out, like I did recently, it becomes overwhelming. I mean, our day-to-day, it’s pretty normal. We don’t stay up until the morning doing art and smoking weed and shit. I feel like I’m getting old, and I’m trying to be healthy. I’m just going to the gym and trying to eat well. It’s a balance between professionalism and artistry, business and personal, love and relationships, and regular life stuff too...

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photography and video by Jasmine Hemery

Check out Bisco's creative agency Daylight Curfew Creative, a creative agency that specializes in design, apparel, identity, instillation, web, video, and audio.

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